The Fanatics of Utrum

I was not kidding when I said I have a lot of ideas for stories with vampires. This is the opening of another that I worked on somewhere around 2016, I think. Admittedly, this story was going to include a wide range of fantasy creatures and be more reminiscent of a setting you might find in Dungeons & Dragons.

Sef was bored.

He felt as though he’d seen a thousand nights just like this one; the moon shining brightly on the Widow’s slopes, black shadows and slowly roiling mist combining to create the illusion that the forest spread out beneath him was not wood and leaf but sluggish water.

Breaking up the illusion were the lights of Escorsus, glimmering at the bottom of the rocky outcropping that provided the base for the modest castle that was Sef’s ancestral home. The town’s lights would burn until dawn, this night and ten thousand nights just like it.

“Lady Sefania,” Sef acknowledged, hearing his mother’s soft steps approaching the edge of the battlements.

“Such a lovely night, Sefan,” Lady Sefania said, coming to a stop next to her son.

She sounded as though she meant it.

In that moment, Sef realized boredom was the least of his worries. His mother was in no danger of growing bored with the current state of affairs. In fact, she’d gone to elaborate lengths to ensure things would continue exactly as they were for the foreseeable future. She would have little desire to leave their environs because everything she wanted was either already here, or could be brought to her door with minimal fuss. He looked at the ground far below and considered throwing himself over the battlements, but he knew his mother would have servants collect and reassemble him well before dawn. And if she felt that he was trying to escape her control –

“What is that?” Lady Sefania asked, leaning forward, delicate black brows drawn together as she frowned in the direction of the moon.

Sef followed her gaze and saw a dark silhouette against the bright, almost full disc.

“It’s a bird – an owl, I believe,” he said after a moment.

The pair slipped into reverie, one contented and the other miserable.

“That’s a strange sort of owl,” Lady Sefania said not long after. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen one so large, or that flies so high and so straight. It seems to be flying right to us.”

Sef made a noncommittal sound in response. He did not feel like engaging in small talk with his mother, wishing she would return to the castle’s interior and leave him in solitude.

“You’re up here more often than I am,” Lady Sefania continued. “Have you seen it before? Is it nesting in the castle?”

“I’ve never seen it before,” Sef answered.

“If it’s nesting here I’ll have the servants remove it tomorrow. An owl that size would leave a disgusting mess,” she went on, without acknowledging her son’s response.

It was a lack of response that would have drawn notice, and censure.

By now Sef had to acknowledge that this owl was, indeed, acting strangely. It had surely seen and heard them and yet continued its course undeterred. He felt a small amount of relief that the night was offering anything unusual at all. It was not long before the owl had reached the battlements, circling so closely that they felt the air stirred by its wings. It proved even stranger up close, as its eyes were unsettling, mismatched and luminescent, one a silver that was so light it was almost white and the other yellow. It landed behind them, and the shape of it stretched and melded, liquid and languid, into the shape of a humanoid in a cowled cloak of feathers. The face within the cowl could not be distinguished, though the eyes were still luminescent and mismatched.

“I am the Messenger of Utrum,” the figure spoke.

Their voice was neither young nor old, masculine or feminine.

“What you are is impertinent,” Lady Sefania said, drawing imperious condescension around her as a cloak and cowl of her own. “Messengers must seek admission with the assistance of my steward.”

Since his mother was not looking in his direction, Sef felt free to roll his eyes at her statement. It might be correct to judge someone as impertinent that claimed to speak on behalf of Axamentu’s fabled Creator, but a servant like this would only serve a master, or masters, of great power and importance.

“However, since you’re already here, you may deliver your message,” Lady Sefania said, probably having drawn the same conclusion as her son.

“You are to be judged,” the messenger said.

Lady Sefania opened her mouth to speak, naked anger on her face, but the messenger held up a hand and Lady Sefania instantly closed her mouth, pursed lips continuing to express her insulted feelings.

“The Fanatics of Utrum will arrive in three nights. I will tell you how you may escape your fate,” the messenger informed her. 

Lady Sefania remained speechless, and Sef felt certain her silence was not voluntary.

“First, you must release the inhabitants of Escorsus from their fear. You must offer restitution for what you have taken from them. You must allow them to come and go as they please, even if this leaves the town empty,” the messenger continued.

“Second, you must release your captives and those you currently hold in thrall,” the messenger said.

Sef kept his face absolutely still in case his mother happened to glance in his direction.

“Third, you must commit, sincerely, to walk a better path than the one you have chosen so far,” the messenger said.

“Oh is that all,” Lady Sefania said, coldly, having apparently been released from her speechless state.

“You have a little time to think on what I have said,” the messenger said, plucking a feather from their cloak. “If you choose to save yourself, you need only release this feather into the wind and I will return.”

Seeing that his mother refused to accept the feather, Sef stepped forward and held out his hand. The messenger looked at him for a moment and then carefully handed over the feather. Sef placed it in an interior pocket of his jacket for safe-keeping and then stepped back to his previous position. He was certain his mother was now glaring at him with the same ferocity she had shown on her face while the messenger doled out its orders.

The self-styled Messenger of Utrum once again melted, reformed into a very large owl, spread broad wings and launched itself into the night sky.

“The Fanatics of Utrum – are they the ones that destroyed the Beast of Formivori?” Sef asked.

“Rumored to have destroyed,” corrected Lady Sefania, with a catlike smile.

“You don’t seem concerned,” Sef said.

“Why should we be?” Lady Sefania said, looking over at the moon once again, her smile growing wider. “If you’ll excuse me, Sefan, I have business to attend to.”

Shortly after disappearing into the stairwell she reappeared.

“You look rather peaked,” Lady Sefania said. “Make sure to feed soon.”

Sef knew that was not a suggestion.

The young woman his mother had ordered brought for him from Escorsus was in her room. It occurred to Sef that he had never seen her anywhere else, even though she had not been ordered to remain in her room. He stopped just inside the room and forced himself to study her for a moment. She was aware he was there but kept her eyes fixed on the floor.

Lady Sefania had introduced the young woman as Arna. Sef wondered if his mother knew how much he hated knowing their names. She probably did. There had been that incident when he was a child, the little pig he’d found wandering around one of the smaller courtyards. He had called it String, for some reason, and played with it until his tutor found him and forced him to go back inside to practice his letters. By the time he was done, String had disappeared, only to reappear as part of the feast being held that night. He had cried and refused to eat and his mother had laughed at him and told him never to befriend his dinner.

Sef had made sure to be careful with Arna. He fed only as often and as little as he needed to stave off the hunger. He had felt pity for her and a small sense of kinship, both of them trapped in this castle with the Lady Sefania, who controlled both of their fates. He wished he did not need to feed from her directly, but his bite healed much faster than a cut from a knife. He knew this from past experience. Usually after he had fed he left the room immediately and found some way to distract himself from the disgust he felt. Tonight he stopped by the door and looked back at Arna, who stood rigidly, eyes closed and hands balled into fists.

“You aren’t confined to this room, you know,” Sef said, feeling awkward. “You’re free to walk around the castle if you’d like. You’re welcome to find something to read in the library, if you’re bored.”

Arna opened her eyes and made an effort to focus on a point somewhere below his chin.

“I can’t read,” she said after a moment. “Everything I need is provided for me here in this room, Lord Sefan.”

Sef experienced a shift in perspective in that moment, and it reminded him of the way he had felt the first time he’d been down to Escorsus and seen how different the castle looked like from outside and far below. Sef realized that Arna would be just as frightened if it was only him without the shadow of Lady Sefania behind him.     

“Release them from their fear,” the messenger had said.

Sef left the room.

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